After the runaway success of his first foray into the world of low budget film production with “Come Play with Me”, released in 1977 by the reformed Tigon Films, porn publishing mogul David Sullivan wasted very little time in commissioning a follow-up. On this occasion, Willy Roe, the lowly associate producer on the first film, found himself promoted to the director’s chair and also handed the task of co-writing the new film, which was to be called “The Playbirds”after Sullivan’s best-selling porn title (although Roe is the only one of three screenwriters involved with it that was willing to put his name to the results; the actual credit goes to Bud Tobin and Robin O’Conner – both pseudonyms). Sullivan had already discovered that his vast pornographic magazine empire could be put to productive use in stoking up anticipation for his forthcoming movies; his concerted publicity campaign for “Come Play With Me” consisted of on-set reports and magazine interviews with its ‘stars’ such as the popular pin-up girl Mary Millington; salacious descriptions of the naughty goings on one could expect to see in the film when it finally arrived (which far exceeded what actually made it to the screen); and explicit publicity shots that did not necessarily give an entirely accurate representation of the soft core contents of the finished, theatrically released article. Sullivan’s magazines, though, proved an excellent advertising tool.
The film soon returned the favour: countless gratuitous shots of its two fading stars, Alfie Bass and George Harrision Marks, casually browsing through tatty issues of Sullivan’s cheekily-named Whitehouse magazine, were regularly interspersed among the lame Music Hall gags and seaside postcard smut that made up the bulk of the film’s content. So actually naming his next film directly after his biggest selling publication was a logical, if blatant piece of product placement - although the surprisingly unsavoury content of the picture makes the decision doubly weird. For this is a very different kind of film to its predecessor (in of itself, a relatively unremarkable exercise in saucy traditional British humour, only with slightly more pubic hair!): “The Playbirds” straddles an uncomfortable line between two genres that would seem to be radically at odds with each other. The familiar schoolboy innuendo and ribald humour of your typical meat-and- potatoes British sex comedy is still there, but the unlikely plot revolves around the police hunt for a maniac sex killer whose victims are all glamour models, all of them having recently appeared in the pages of Playbirds magazine! Hot on the case are hard-boiled Chief Superintendent Holbourne (Glynn Edwards) and his younger sidekick, Inspector Harry Morgan (Gavin Campbell), whose investigation plunges them into the seedy world of medallion-wearing porn tycoon Harry Dougan (Alan Lake), the publisher of the magazine the killer has been targeting for victims.
The approach the film takes to its subject is unusual to say the least: a facetious way of describing it would be to ask the reader to imagine what might possibly result if Dario Argento were to have directed “Carry On Camping” -- except that we’re probably much closer to Andrea Bianchi’s “Strip Nude For Your Killer” than we are “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage” in terms of understanding the way in which the gialli influence is made apparent in the structure of the film, and in certain obvious visual tropes such as the unseen killer’s black leather gloves.
The Giallo form itself very often dabbled in straightforward exploitation, of course; and that, along with the garish fashions and décor of the films of its specific period, plays its part in the genre’s enduring contemporary popularity. Also, film-makers such as Pete Walker became adept at combining the commercial appeal of the sex movie with that of the horror flick to generate box office returns at a time in the early seventies when the British film industry was on its knees. It’s worth making the comparison though between, say, Walker’s film “Schizo” on the one hand, and the “Playbirds”, in order to grasp just how bizarre Sullivan’s titillating, Soho-based sub-giallo hybrid really is: “Schizo” also features plenty of black gloved killer action occurring in some deeply unglamorous and grey London locations, not to mention its fair share of gratuitous nudity as well; but it still obeys the basic ground rules of the thriller and takes itself seriously enough to warrant at least some attention paid to the basic mechanics of the nominal plot. In contrast, an indication of the warped approach “The Playbirds” takes to proceedings comes at the climax (no pun intended) of a fairly typical giallo-like sequence in which one of the earthy blonde models who fill the mag’s pages is suddenly pounced upon in her disturbingly ordinary-looking house by the deer-stalker-&-duffle-coat-clad maniac, while reclining on her sofa: as the black gloves close around her neck, she burbles (in the flat monotone of one of the many non-acting real-life models making up the quotient of flesh-revealing dolly bird victims which populate the film) ‘Oh goodie, I’m going to be raped! I’ve never been raped before!’
The killings themselves, though – slow, protracted throttlings, during which the victim’s top will eventually come adrift to reveal her breasts as she breathes her last … that is if she’s actually wearing anything to begin with! – are enacted completely straight, sometimes with real taut suspense and conviction in their performance: one victim is drowned in the bath (a la “Blood and Black Lace”), another is assaulted as she’s entering her flat, and strangled before she can let out even a scream; one sequence is even shot hand-held, from the killer’s point of view, as he pursues his terrified prospective victim through her living room. Now where have we seen that kind of thing before?
Yet throughout the picture there is the same light-hearted, jack-the-lad, let’s-have-a-laugh attitude one finds in all soft core British sex comedies of the 1970s. The contrast in styles is jarring to say the least – but it makes this film into a cult item like no other. While even the most explicit Italian giallo will play the game of attempting to at least appear to have some deep insight into criminal psychology to impart, “The Playbirds” is quite unashamedly blatant about its intentions: girls are being murdered for our pleasure, so that we can get a good look at their’ naughty bits’.
The on-screen simulated murder of half-naked crumpet isn’t the film’s only source of gratuitous female nudity, though: lest we were to forget, perish the thought, that this is primarily a sex film before it’s a thriller, our intrepid police heroes (it’s the typical ‘70s cop show pairing, consisting of the seen-it-all-before cynicism of the world-weary veteran cop, contrasted with the idealistic, technocratic vigour of the younger sidekick who places undue trust in clunky 1970s mainframe computers rather than in good old fashioned leg-work) are thrust into the exceedingly thrusting world of Dougan’s porn empire and soon suspect that he may himself be the culprit when they learn of his interest in Black Magic. The duo witness Dougan auditioning cover girls in his office overlooking Battersea Power Station, and frequently stumble into random totty flesh-baring situations such as studio photo shoots, where they encounter the magazine’s shifty photographer – yet another of the film’s obvious suspects. When Dougan takes on a replacement model (despite the fact that they all appear to be getting murdered with increasing frequency), the callow Inspector Morgan is assigned the task of shadowing her to keep her safe from the attentions of the killer. This naturally involves sitting in on her racy nude photo shoots or waiting shiftily in her living room while she gets changed in the bedroom or cavorts about her house semi named. Hence, barely a few minutes pass without some excuse for full-frontal nudity – although it’s all unwaveringly soft- core in nature.
The’ acting’ from these pliant, nubile sex performers-cum-murder victims is unvaryingly atrocious, as you’d expect. Sullivan’s roster of models-hoping-to-become-actors was raided to fill most of the roles in these films and they are out in force here too; chief among them of course, Sullivan’s porn star and pin-up girlfriend Mary Millington, of whom more later. The weird thing about Sullivan’s sex films of the period, though, is the fact that they’re also crammed-full of respectable, talented British thespians, often doing decent work whilst rubbing up alongside the considerably less ‘polished’ performances of sundry porno stars and would-be nude models. “The Playbirds” holds many head-scratching delights in this area: most notably, we have Glynn Edwards (who most people will know as the barman in “Minder”) in a major role, actually giving a really nice performance as the chief police inspector. Given the treatment people like Millington claimed to experience at the hands of the police, the force is unusually sympathetically portrayed in this film - although they are, in the end, totally ineffective. Glynn Edwards’ policeman partner is, bizarrely, better known for co-presenting the cosy Sunday night 1970s/80s consumer programme “That’s Life”; but Gaven Campbell is the perfect wide-eyed ‘boy next door’ back-up to Edwards’ tough but fair veteran. No seventies sex film is complete without a cameo by a major British comedy star who’s fallen on hard times and been forced to slum it, and Windsor Davis duly obliges as the Police Commissioner, here. Dudley Sutton, later a regular TV fixture on “Lovejoy”, also crops up as a ranting representative of the religious right – a deranged nut-job, and so another obvious stereotypical suspect.
Meanwhile, Alan Lake, the actor husband of Britain’s home-grown sexpot of fifties cinema, Diana Dors, is perfectly cast as the doyen of the new London ‘Pornocracy’, Harry Dougan. In most thrillers with a plot line like this one, such a character would be written as irredeemably corrupt and unlikable, and although he does come across that way to some extent, it isn’t actually the intention of the film-makers that he should! It’s not a coincidence that both Dougan and Holbourne share the same Christian name; and while Dougan owns a race-horse and spends his afternoons at Newmarket, Holbourne is a racing addict and usually has one ear pinned on the racing results while investigating the case. The crux of the plot involves Holbourne and Morgan arranging an undercover job in which one of their policewomen colleagues will have to pose as a would-be glamour model who’s looking for a chance to appear in Playbirds magazine, in order to get close enough to Dougan and find evidence of his guilt. This involves them holding ‘auditions’ to find someone who can convincingly pass themselves off as a stripper. In other words, Dougan and Holbourne are actually two peas in a pod: The scene in which Glynn Edwards and Gavin Campbell sit hunched forward behind their desk while numerous policewomen take it in turns to strip for them, look even sleazier than Dougan’s office auditions for his models. In actual fact, Alan Lake is clearly meant to be David Sullivan’s on-screen alter ego, and so when happy-go-lucky WPC Lucy Sheridan (played by Millington) gets the assignment, her investigation only reveals what a misunderstood chap Dougan really is and, naturally enough, she falls for him!
This is a much bigger role for Millington than her brief appearance in “Come Play with Me” and requires some proper acting. Unfortunately, this was never a skill Mary Millington was able to develop in sufficient quantities. Her performance is curiously endearing, though, for all its rough, naïve amateurishness. The character she is playing is really just an exaggerated version of herself in some respects; combining the strangely prim, suburban, homely aspects of her persona with the rampantly sexual side, unexpectedly unleashed by her being called upon to, firstly, perform a sultry strip to get the assignment; and secondly, bed Dougan and take part in Playbirds nude photo shoots. Naturally, given the nature of this film, rather than being the road to corruption and spiritual ruin, as it would be in a more conventional flick of this genre, here Lucy Sheridan’s eyes are opened, her horizons broadened and her libido liberated by her experiences in the ‘glamorous’, gaudy world of nude photo modelling and the fun campaign party lifestyle that turns out to come with it. Unfortunately, Lucy’s cover is just a bit too good, and she soon also comes to the attention of the real murderer.
“The Playbirds”, unlike “Come Play with Me” and most other sex films of this period, is a fairly well-made, pacey film. It’s obviously been quickly shot on a tight budget and mostly everything gets filmed in perfunctory medium shot and in real-life locations (the interior of Millington’s own house is even used for some scenes) rather than constructed film sets. It actually works quite well for most of its running time, though, at least while the plot sticks to alternating murder sequences and police investigation scenes with mildly titillating soft core sexual content. The film only really goes off the rails in the final ten minutes when an extended chase sequence through a building site falls flat through being shoddily put together -- lacking both pace or coherence. The film goes for a twist ending that is actually quite shocking in its offhand treatment of a major character, though. The effect is rendered even more startling for its seguing straight into David Whitaker’s cheesy, crooned theme song as though nothing at all unusual had just happened; It’s just one more strange and crazy moment that occurs in a flick that is trying to be a Soho sex film, a comedy, a thriller and horror film all at the same time. I can’t help recommending it as the guiltiest of pleasures.
Odeon Entertainment has released this beautifully remastered special edition of “The Playbirds” as part of its Mary Millington collection. The film now looks wonderful and fans will find themselves boggling at the clarity and colourfulness of the print: It has probably never looked better. No effort has been spared in finding suitable Millington-related materials to accompany the film on DVD. Look out for the photo gallery, which contains stills and posters for “The Playbirds” as well as one or two explicit Millington nude shots that go further than anything in the actual film (although we’re still talking soft core). There’s also another of Mary’s 8mm mail order shorts included, this one shot for Knave publisher Russell Gay. Titled “Response”, this is a soft core lesbian erotic fantasy in which a secretary fantasises about her female boss to take the boredom out of her husband’s stale lovemaking. This is more erotic than explicit, and ends on an unexpectedly emotionally genuine note of thwarted longing. Last and definitely least is the forty-five minute film “Mary Millington’s World Striptease Extravaganza”. A posthumous cash-in that has very little to do with Millington, consisting of a short striptease sequence she performed for the film “Queen of the Blues” tacked onto the beginning of an execrable club striptease contest introduced by the odd and uncomfortable-looking John M. East and hosted by the bloody awful ‘70s comedian, Bernie Winters. This is truly bottom of the barrel stuff. The strippers are mostly porno stars rather than real burlesque performers, and after forty minutes of lame gags from the increasingly perspiring Winters, and half-hearted and repetitive strips performed to third-rate disco tracks and the even duller club band, the whole thing culminates in a weird cutaway where one of the ‘contestants’ remembers having a threesome with one of the other strippers and the lead judge. Pointless and pitiful, you’ll deserve a medal if you manage to make it to the end when Bernie Winters gets his shirt ripped off by the girls. You gotta larf!
Trailers for other Odeon Entertainment sex flicks which are now available, and some informative sleeve notes by Simon Sheridan, author if Come Play with Me: The Life and films of Mary Millington, round off an mostly enjoyable trip into the seedy ‘70s – and a film that serves as an excellent reminder of just how weird that decade could be.